One Moment One Christmas


It feels like it happened yesterday. Though in fact it’s fifty Christmases since we were in our little house by the sea. Funny how the intense impressions of youth are saved forever on your hard-drive, whereas why you came to the Post Office remains a mystery. The kind Indian man has eyes that twinkle as he runs over possibilities for me: – “Stamps? Letter? Parcel?” He leans forward, for his little joke, “Dri-ving license?” We both giggle inanely. And I point my stick at him as he knows I will.                                                   “Rude!” I shout, causing the rest of the queue to stare in alarm at the unsupported stump of my right leg. I used to wear a prosthesis but these days I hardly bother.  I am who I am.  I see my hand tremble as I sign for the parcel.  E.  Homes.  He puts the small package gently into my hand and closes the fingers around it. He is smiling.                       “Happy Christmas!” he says.                                                                                                                             

Ellie did not know what she’d expected, but she hadn’t expected this; a sea of tents as far as the eye could see, thick ribbons of mud and a sharp wind that made the canvas pitch and tremble like boats at sea; piles of rubbish everywhere and grubby children . Men ambled about, shoulders hunched against the weather, shovelling mud from tent flaps or raising mobiles hopefully to the sky. Worst of all were the sounds of despair – savage coughing and moans of pain from behind canvas, cries for help whipped away in the unforgiving wind. She saw a couple of young doctors, about her age, moving from tent to tent, immediately surrounded by men, women and children, asking in broken English for pain killers, antibiotics, dressings. What struck her most, as she made her way to the makeshift school, was the team spirit  – the sharing of food, drugs, possessions, the kindness.

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“You have it! I can man-age,” she heard a man say, offering an inhaler to a small child. He was wearing jeans and a thin jacket and coughing loudly into wet tissues. She saw women giving their food to other women’s children. She saw a teenager remove his jumper and give it to the coughing man. Craning her neck, she glimpsed the latter’s chip toothed smile as he pulled it over his head. It was thick but tight and the arms were too short. She heard laughter erupting from the group around him. This place, she decided, was misnamed The Jungle, where the each survived at another’s expense. These people had next to nothing, but they shared everything.

The school, with its wooden frame and rows of pallet benches, was full. Weary men sat alongside round eyed children, hugging themselves to keep warm. She took off her rucksack, took our her books, smiled.

The next week was a blur of impressions – days spent teaching English phrases, evenings helping dish out food at the camp kitchen, nights tossing and turning in the tired caravan buffeted by sea winds. In the run up to Christmas the weather worsened – sleety rain battered the camp, the wind was needle-sharp and everywhere the mud deepened and swelled, sliding into everything – shoes, clothes, tents. The students were keen to practise their English but there was one silent child. who always sat on the second bench. He was about eight years old, with thick hair and heavy eyes narrowed by eczema. He sat on the bench and swung his legs and listened. Ellie liked to walk up and down when she was teaching and she felt the boy’s eyes follow her everywhere.  A young man always brought him in, lifted him onto the bench, then returned for him after lessons. Curious, one day she asked one of the refugees about him.

“We no know!” He shrugged, “He no speak. Ahmed, he find him on journey from Syria. Ahmed look after him like brother because he alone. We call him Jack.”

From then on, she made a special effort to smile at him. She gave him a chocolate bar and when Ahmed came for him, she asked if he needed anything for the boy. Ahmed, a sullen teenager, transformed into a tender friend where Jack was concerned, bowed politely as he reached for the boy’s hand.

“Thank you!” he said, “We need only place on lorry to England. Everyone do!” And then he left.

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The days dragged on. Ellie’s train was booked for Christmas Eve. One day, a French volunteer brought a Christmas tree into the school.  It had been roughly cut and shoved into a green bucket that someone had decorated with red paint. A shop had donated it along with decorations and strings of tiny lights. So it was that on the twenty first of December, Ellie found herself up at seven, decorating the school with other volunteers for a surprise party. They made paper snowflakes to stick to the windows, filled plates with tiny Buches de Noel and hung paper chains made from bandage wrappers. Someone had donated a hundred cans of Cola.

When the students arrived, they stared. The children pointed. Even the men smiled and touched the paper snowflakes wonderingly.

“You can only come to the party if you speak in English!” announced Ellie.

“O-kay!” the students called, “We spik Eng-leesh!” They passed food, drank the Cola and Ellie told them they would be playing English party games.

“Chrees-mas tree!” The voice, young and clear, rang out from the back of the school room. Everyone fell silent. Ahmed was making his usual late entry with Jack limping at his side, the boy pulling his sleeve and pointing.

“Chrees-mas tree!” he said, again. Ahmed was trying to smile, pulling his dirty sleeve across his eyes. Everyone was staring. When they got to the front of the room, Ahmed lifted the boy up and held him so he could see the baubles, the lights, the star on the top.

“Chrees-mas tree!” he said again, sighing with delight. The refugees gathered round, smiling, chucking him on the chin. Ellie would never forget that Christmas. There was more laughter, more hope in that room than she had ever experienced. And it came, in true Christmas spirit, from a child. Half way through, someone came in with post for her, a brown padded envelope from her mother. Inside was a note and a gift. “For your little house by the sea,” it said, “To put you in the mood for Christmas!” And inside, wrapped up tightly in bubble wrap, was a decoration from home – one of her favourites : a tiny Christmas tree hung with gold twine. What were the chances of that? She would never forget Jack’s face when she gave it to him. In fact, she would never forget that day. Not ever.

On Christmas Eve, she went early to find Ahmed to say goodbye, but the tent was empty.

“They gone,” said a neighbour sadly, appearing suddenly behind her.

“Gone?” Ellie was shocked, “Gone where?”

The woman pulled her headscarf over her face and readjusted it, pointing towards the tunnel. “There traff-eec jam today. Because of Chris-maas. They go find lorry. Poor Jack. He not want go. But Ahmed, he make him! He need treatment, you know, for leg.”

“What leg?” Ellie was confused.

“jack always limping,” she replied, “In Seey-ria, a soldier, he ask him if he want treat. Then they take him away and they drive over his leg. He need hospital now.”

Distressed, Ellie peered into the tent. The two sleeping bags, pillows and piles of blankets were still there. But clothes, any personal items had gone. She felt heavy as lead. What were the chances of them getting across? Almost nil. Much higher were the chances of injury or arrest. Only last month a pregnant woman had died falling off a lorry. As she backed out of the tent, filled with fear for her friends, her foot fell on something small and knobbly. She bent down and picked  it up.

I am thinking of this today as I chunter home, as I think of it every Christmas. The party with the coloured lights, the food, the kindness of strangers. After fifty Christmases in this, my adopted land, that was still my best ever. Those volunteers and friends particularly Ahmed, who looked out for me after my brother died on the journey, they gave me the most precious gift of all –  my voice. I found the organisation that Ellie worked for and I wrote to her. We corresponded for years. I told her we shared the same name. They called me Jack while I was silent. But my real name was Elias, Elias Homsi, conveniently anglicised to Eli Homes.

I unwrap the parcel in front of the fire and read the Christmas card – Eli, I always meant to give you this. I’ve finally got round to sending it. Happy Christmas! Love Ellie x

I hang the tiny Christmas tree with its gold twine and painted decorations. I will show it to Ahmed when he arrives tomorrow.

 

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Based on eye witness accounts of the appalling situation faced by the refugees at the Calais camp.

If you enjoyed this story, would you consider donating to help with the refugee work in Calais? It doesn’t have to be a lot – only 50p will buy a hot meal for a refugee. Please click on the link if you’d like to help…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moles and Glimpses of Things


What do you do on a thin day in winter when you’re not at work, your To Do List is vile and the air outside beckons with cut glass finger? You go out of course, with your husband or your friend, to Richmond Park. You worry you’ll regret this later because there are decisions and emails and appointments to sort, and school work hissing at you from a pile in the corner. Also the carpets look like a scene from Armageddon, on Day Two. But it’s your day off…so you leave them. After the week you’ve had, you know what you need. This takes enormous will power and, as you settle in the car with your new camera and the prospect of a walk and a latte, you congratulate yourself on your mental strength.

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When you get to the park, there are birds, and trees and wide spaces filled with pastel coloured light. You remember with relief that there’s this whole world outside home, school and church that exists quietly without your input and has a different rhythm, a kind of slow-time which fills you with breath, like a yawn. In the silence you walk on wet leaves and down pathways which pull you irresistibly towards the views from Pembroke Lodge. If someone asked you at this point what was on your To Do List, you wouldn’t even remember. The Great Outdoors has worked its magic again and you’ve emerged from tight spaces, a crumpled paper smoothed out for re-use.

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What you love most, apart from the trees and the silence and the views across the city, are the glimpses of things; windows, smoky trees, the gracious rise of houses; threads of gold on a winter’s day. There are steps and pathways and an old gate with a glimpse of meadows on the other side, which you can’t walk in today, but you’re happy that they’re there. Best of all there’s a viewing point on top of King Henry’s Mound where you can see a keyhole glimpse of St Paul’s Cathedral, ten miles away.

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You go into Pembroke Lodge and are amused to read about its history before you tuck into lunch and a latte, which is extravagant for you, but delays the moment when you take up that other life, at least for a bit. As you eat, you marvel at the fact that this lodge began life as a cottage occupied by a mole catcher. It’s hard to imagine that mole catching was once a full-time job, but there we are. This was around 1754. It seems that “his sole duty was to prevent the peril to huntsmen presented by molehills”. This you find fascinating. You know that Richmond Park was one of the Kings’ hunting grounds but who’d have thought that moles could be dangerous? So dangerous, in fact, that their activities caused extreme peril to huntsmen who could not take to their horses without fear of mole related plots, to dismount them and kill their steeds. Your husband, or friend, wonders what happened to the moles. You briefly discuss the virtues of Mole Pie or Fillet of Mole with Mushrooms. How would you catch a mole in the 1700s? One imagines it would be fairly basic, the mole catcher coming home to his house on the hill, with mole juice on his hand, to ask his family, “What shall we do with the moles today? Anyone need a sponge?” It makes you laugh, but inside you do feel sorry, for the moles.

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Over the years the lodge was expanded and became a grand home owned by countesses and lords. It was visited by Queen Victoria, Gladstone, Dickens, Tennyson and Lewis Carroll. Bertrand Russell grew up there. Then it became a regimental head-quarters during the war. Finally it was converted into flats for park staff with a cafeteria on the ground floor for the public. It’s also hired out for occasions.

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As you drive home, the lodge breaking up like a dream in the wing mirror, you wonder about the mole catcher and what he would think of it now: the wide sweep of stone, the cafe, the famous people who have lived there or visited. Before you know it you are whisking between shops, stopping at lights, staring at women with shopping or children. And you’re back in that other world again.

But when you get home, you feel different, lighter. Your To Do List won’t kill you and your school work is snoozing beneath a pile of newspapers. You tidy, hoover. And when you’ve finished, you yawn and stretch and put the kettle on. You notice things like patterned light on the desk, the view from the window. You’re still in slow-time.

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And on Monday, when you tunnel to work through streets laced with rain, and your mind skitters like a mole along the unlived rat-runs of your day, think of this; the space and the silence and the pastel light. And look for patterns on the pavement and the way the sky’s getting lighter; glimpses of gold on a dark day. And remind yourself – there will be other days. Like an old gate with a glimpse of meadows that you can’t walk in, it’s enough to know they’re there.

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Gold


The day is dark and November-heavy. There’s no milk. I search through the window for a breath of beauty but there isn’t any. It’s wet, and last week I left my umbrella in a John Lewis changing room. I went back but it’d gone and I was cross because it was a pretty one – small with a leather handle and a black frill – the umbrella, not the room. I imagine a John-Lewis-type discovering it, in her underwear. I am not a John-Lewis-type. Shops like that scare me. I only go in there for sales and curtain material (or coffee).

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Anyway I’m going off shopping, big-time. It makes me want things I didn’t know existed – like headphone earmuffs or a cashmere hot water bottle (I don’t even have any headphones.) Also it’s draining and makes my feet hurt. I wish I lived in the country where there are no shops and you can smell soil and hear rain on leaves. London is drab in winter – wet or foggy and grey with sky like a scowl. The suburbs are concrete slabs with beds on. They have no secrets and no soul…

But it’s Friday so I can be slow, and there’s my Kindle and coffee and the local paper. The rain stops. Through the window, birds, a tiny rosebud. It’s a bit battle scarred and sad, but it’s alive, tight as a fist. All the other branches are dead, stems shrivelled, making the bud stand out, all yellow and hopeful like a smile.

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The rain’s brought out colours. Across the garden raindrops shiver from trees, there are berries and die-hard poppies. I like the way they just stand there, not caring that they’re a mess. Look, we didn’t expect to be here, in November, okay?! It’s a bonus. Enjoy it while it lasts…. I hope I’m like that when I’m old – bright, dishevelled, grateful… I don’t want to be a sour old woman, seeing the worst in everything and everyone. Life can do this to you, if you don’t pay attention, if you stop looking…

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What’s happened to me? I used to love autumn. All that shrugging on coats and scarves and easing conkers out of spiky shells. And a new hat – always a new hat for winter. I’d forgotten.

I go for a walk and see that God, who does autumn every year and knows what works, has tossed gems through south-west London. Behind cars or concrete – bush-low berries, coy trees on brick. Through bare branches, glimpses of pubs or backs of houses. Late roses and leaf art on pavements. And holly.

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When it’s grey, don’t forget to look for signs. Panning for gold is a way of life. And the bleaker the day, the more they stand out. If you’re looking right.

I take photos, go shopping and buy a hat.  From a shop.

From the bus there’s a sea of umbrellas and fine spraying rain. But I’m happy because of the hat and a horse chestnut which hammers the top of the bus with fists full of conkers. And on the walk home, there are berries.

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I think of the John-Lewis-type, (bold, confident, matching underwear), and wish her joy with her new umbrella. And hope the stray spoke doesn’t have her eye out…

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